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Lots of blame to go around in Broncos' epic fail against Steelers

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After dominating the first half and finding the red zone four times, the Broncos could barely get a first down in the second. That's not even close to good enough when playing the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Meltdown.

Implosion.

Collapse.

Epic fail.

Pick your noun, all apply.

For the third game in so many weeks, the Broncos faded dramatically from first-half dominance to second-half irrelevancy. For the second game in a row, that meant squandering a lead and dropping the game.

Going four-for-four on its first-half possessions (following a fumble on their first series), the now 10-4 Broncos looked unstoppable as Brock Osweiler marched the offense into the end zone four times via two passes to Demaryius Thomas, one to Emmanuel Sanders and one where the 6-foot-8 quarterback strutted into the paint himself.

All this while the defense was stopping Ben Roethlisberger and the NFL's hottest offense cold, holding the Steelers offense to just two field goals after Pittsburgh scored a touchdown off a fumble recovery on Denver's 21-yard line early in the game.

But if the first half was "Star Wars"-esque, the second half was "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" as a completely different team took the field.

Boasting four touchdowns on five possessions in the first two quarters, with three of those lasting 10 or more plays, the second half stats seemed too bad to be true - six punts, five three-and-outs with the longest possession of the half coming from a seven-play desperation drive that saw just one third-down conversion but four incomplete passes.

"I'm sure we'll spend a lot of time tomorrow in meetings discussing how we can get that fixed and how we can get a fast start in the second half and score some points," Osweiler said after the game about the second-half collapse. "You play 60 minutes, not 30 minutes. That is something that we will work on and we will fix."

While the Broncos offense was bumbling, Big Ben found his rhythm, moving up in the pocket to escape pressure and finding any number of viable targets - Antonio Brown for 187 yards, Martavis Bryant for 87 and Markus Wheaton for 62 by the time it was over.

We just weren't doing anything. So [the defense] just kept going back out there, and I'm sure they were worn out. -Gary Kubiak, head coach

After an impressive fight by the Broncos defense in the first half, the Orange Crush fizzled, in part because of the imbalance on time of possession. Steelers owned more than 18 minutes of the second half while the Broncos could barely claim a dozen.

"I'm sure they did," Gary Kubiak said of the defense getting tired in the second half. "We just weren't doing anything. So they just kept going back out there, and I'm sure they were worn out. We just couldn't put anything together."

The Broncos' running game wasn't stellar but at least made an appearance this week with 104 yards total (compared to last week's 34), but with Osweiler's 19 incomplete passes in the second half and an interception, the offense never gave itself a chance and instead let one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL storm its way right back into the lead.

"As a team, we probably played as good at times as we could tonight and then not so good at times," said Kubiak, who put the "very disappointing" loss on poor execution and penalties that kept the offense from getting into its groove again in the second half. "This is a great football team we played. We needed to do it all night long, and we didn't. Offensively in the second half we didn't make any of the plays we made in the first half. We had some opportunities and didn't get it done. You better be built for four quarters, not three."

Or two, which was the number of quarters the offense played well. By the third quarter, the Steelers' defense had adjusted and the Broncos offense shut down, thanks to QB pressure, no run game, penalties and conservative play calls.

Osweiler owned up to his part in the mistake-laden half.

"The game flies - when you're on the field it's very fast," said Osweiler, noting that defensive linemen often show up in his face quickly. "You think you have some time then before you know it there's some color in your face. I think it's a big learning curve for me to decide when to take off, when to throw it down the field, and when it's time to throw it away."

While there is obviously a lot of blame to go around on offense - dropped balls, overthrown passes, sacks, turnovers, conservative play-calling - the defense certainly didn't do all it could to win.

Despite containing the Steelers offense in the first half, the NFL's best defense - heralded by its No Fly Zone - looked more like the "Fly Right By" Zone much of the fourth quarter. And cornerback Chris Harris Jr. placed the blame on himself.

"It was the best versus the best and he won," Harris said, referring to Antonio Brown, who Harris called the "best receiver in the game" right now. "I have not given up a touchdown in two years. The way I played was very disappointing, and I let my team down. I just did not make any plays today."

Harris had just three tackles on the day, a pass interference penalty and two touchdowns scored on him.

"Usually when I play bad like this we lose the game," Harris said, adding that last week the offense played poorly, this week, No. 25. "We were supposed to win this game, the offense did enough. They scored enough points in the first half. This is on the defense. We cannot let them come back, I cannot give up two touchdowns in a half. That's on me."

Fellow cornerback Aqib Talib gave props to the Steelers offense more than blame on the Broncos defense.

"They played good. They made plays in big situations. We needed to tackle better. Kudos to those boys," Talib said, adding that Roethlisberger was the key. "You put another quarterback in there and they are not the same. We knew that we would have to do more in the second half, and we did not. So we lost it."

It was a demoralizing loss but not a dividing one, said Emmanuel Sanders, who had his best game of the season while playing in front of his former home crowd.

It felt good to start fast. We have to continue to get better. I do not know what it is but we just have to be a better second-half team. -Emmanuel Sanders

"It felt good to be back in front of Steelers Nation waving the towels, but I wish the result would have been better," said Sanders, who led the Broncos receivers with 181 yards on 10 catches. "It felt good to start fast. We have to continue to get better. I do not know what it is but we just have to be a better second half team."

Since Osweiler stepped into the starting quarterback role, Broncos won three straight and then lost the last two, putting the Broncos' once assured AFC West title in jeopardy.

The lack of scoring in the second half the past two games has added fuel to what one MHR reader aptly called "the most inconsequential" quarterback controversy.

As Peyton Manning does his best to stay in the background while rehabbing a torn plantar fascia, the media is doing its best to keep the controversy alive. NFL Network's Ian Rapaport yesterday reported that Manning was not interested in being Osweiler's backup.

Telling the Denver Post's Mark Kiszla after the game that that report was "bullshit and insulting" Manning insisted that his only goal is to get healthy so he can be part of the team.

"It's miserable not being out there," Manning said, adding that it's worse when the team is losing. "You know how hard the guys work. And that was a heart-breaking loss."

But Manning also knows he needs to be in very good condition - even if not 100 percent - to be the effective quarterback the Broncos need.

"I want to get to feeling as good as I can," Manning told Kiszla, noting that doctors say two months is typical for completely getting over plantar fasciitis. "You want to avoid compromising to the point where you can't do your job. It's not fair to anybody. What I'm shooting for is to get to feeling good and feel like you can do your job."

Kubiak will check in with Manning today and make a plan for the week, but it seems likely that if Manning sees the field this season, it will be in two weeks against San Diego.

Regardless of the quarterback situation, two things are clear - the Broncos need to win and they will have to do it as a unified team.

Sanders believes if there's a locker room that can handle it, it's the one in Dove Valley.

"This locker room is not going to split. We are a team and we will go through a lot and be tested," No. 10 said. "One thing is we still have our goals to reach. We can still make the playoffs, we can still win the Super Bowl. So everything is going to be alright."